It’s 2002 all over again – or is it?

Last Saturday’s Victorian election was a landslide victory to the ALP – only its second in modern times. So it was completely natural for pundits to see it as a rerun of that first occasion, in 2002, when Steve Bracks won re-election with a 36-seat majority.

There are certainly some big similarities. But there are key differences as well, and I thought it might be useful to run through some of them.

First, the starting point. Bracks had won government the first time around without a majority in his own right – he depended on three independents – and with a bare majority (50.2%) of the two-party-preferred vote. Daniel Andrews, on the other hand, won more convincingly in 2014: 52.0% two-party-preferred, and 47 of the 88 seats (although Labor subsequently lost one in a by-election).

So a huge swing of 7.6% in 2002 took Labor to 57.8%. This time around, it has reached a similar point – probably a bit short, of the order of 57% – with a smaller swing, in the neighborhood of 5%. (All figures are provisional at this stage; they will move around a bit with another week of counting.)

In 2002 Labor improved its position by 20 seats, finishing with 62. This time it looks like picking up about eight, for a total of maybe 55 (or 57 counting the Greens, which is probably a fairer comparison, since there were no Greens in 2002).

So it’s not just the votes but how they’re distributed that matters. If it’s about winning seats, Labor hasn’t got as good a return for its votes as it did in 2002. On the other hand, if it’s about frightening the Liberals, it’s done rather well.

In 2002, the biggest swings to Labor were mostly in the outer metropolitan seats, in the mortgage belt. But (perhaps due to the Trumpification of politics) Labor’s position in those seats has relatively weakened; it’s generally behind where it was 16 years ago.

In Narre Warren North, for example, Labor’s biggest swing in 2002, its vote is now 2.7% below that mark. Ringwood is 3.6% down, Ferntree Gully 4.9%, Narre Warren South 6.1%, Bayswater 6.6%.

But in the Liberal heartland, Labor is mostly ahead of its 2002 support: in seats like Brighton, Kew, Malvern, Sandringham, and most strikingly Hawthorn, which it’s on the verge of winning with an 8.6% swing – taking it to 5.7% above its 2002 position.

The 2002 landslide left the opposition needing a uniform swing of 7.6% to win back government. This time Labor has entrenched itself so well in its marginal seats that that figure is a little under 9%. And the other side of the pendulum is bad for the opposition as well, with a bunch of highly marginal seats of its own to defend.

But those figures are mostly academic, because there will be a redistribution in the life of this parliament. That’s another difference; the 2002 election was held just after a redistribution, so seats were reasonably equal in voting strength.

Not so this time: Victoria has enjoyed a population boom in recent years, so there are now major disparities between low-growth and high-growth seats. And since the growth is mostly in Labor-voting areas, boundary changes to adjust for that are most unlikely to benefit the opposition.

There are other differences that can’t be easily quantified. Steve Bracks was a cautious premier, partly because he was constrained by the independents; he was careful not to rock the boat. Andrews, on the other hand, has boasted of heading the most progressive state government in the country. It’s much harder now for the Liberals to claim that Labor has stolen their clothes.

The difference on the Liberal side is even bigger. In 2002, like today, the party was mired in factional warfare, but it was largely non-ideological. Unlike the current situation, there was no sense of a contest for the party’s soul.

In recent years, however, the authoritarian and fundamentalist wing of the party has taken control. Under their direction the Liberal campaign pushed hard in the very areas where Andrews was most proud of his progressive credentials. Instead of playing to the party’s traditional strengths, they made the election a referendum on issues of race, drugs and sexuality – which they lost, badly.

Despite the organisational problems, however, the parliamentary Liberal Party has been a mostly united bunch for the last term. That’s a contrast to 2002, where the parliamentary party, having made life a misery for its leader, Denis Napthine, had finally deposed him just three months before the election and replaced him with Robert Doyle.

That put the leadership into no-person’s-land: on the one hand it seemed unfair to blame Doyle for the disaster, but on the other hand it seemed impossible that he could recover from it. He ended up staying on as leader until shortly before the 2006 election, when he was deposed in his turn.

This time, at least there is the opportunity for a clean break on the leadership front; Matthew Guy has resigned, and a new leader (to be chosen next week) will be able to make a fresh start.

But unless that person can somehow tackle the toxic culture in their party, their tenure is likely to be an unhappy one.


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